• RSS icon
  • Share icon
  • Printer-friendly version

Ion Antonescu

Last modified 11 September 2011.

First published 26 November 2003. Updated 3 February 2006

AKA 'Conducator' (Leader), AKA 'Red Dog'.

Country: Romania.

Kill tally: About 300,000 Romanian Jews and up to 500,000 Romanian soldiers.

Background: Romania achieves full independence from the Ottoman Empire on 3 March 1878. In March 1881 the Romanian parliament proclaims the country a kingdom. Led by King Carol I, Romania's first constitutional monarch, the new nation is deeply nationalistic and determined to maintain its freedom. However, the ethnically Romanian regions of Transylvania to the west, and Bukovina and Bessarabia to the north and east remain outside the state, with Transylvania staying under the sway of Hungry and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Meanwhile, Romania's Jewish population begins to expand rapidly during the 19th Century, mainly as a result of immigration. By 1899 the population has grown to 269,000. By 1939 it is estimated at 760,000, making Romania's Jewish community the third largest in Eastern Europe, after the Soviet Union and Poland.

Many Romanians see the newcomers as an economic threat. Jews face persecution and most are prevented from taking Romanian citizenship. More background.

Mini biography: Born in Pitesti, about 110 km northwest of Bucharest, on 15 June 1882, into an average family. Though an avowed antisemite, Antonescu will become engaged to two separate Jewish women and marry a third. His father will also divorce his mother to marry a Jewish woman.

Antonescu receives his education in French military schools and pursues a career in the army. By 1907 he has risen to the rank of lieutenant.

1907 - Antonescu participates in the suppression of a peasant revolt in and around the city of Galati, about 180 km northeast of Bucharest, gaining the attention of his superiors for his initiative and ruthlessness.

1911 - He graduates from the military academy.

1913 - Antonescu participates in the Second Balkan War against Bulgaria, winning Romania's highest military decoration.

1914 - The First World War begins early in August, with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) pitted against the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia). Romania stays out of the conflict, waiting to see which side may prevail.

King Carol I dies and is succeeded by his nephew, Ferdinand. Ferdinand's wife, Queen Marie, the British-born princess of Edinburgh, is the real power behind the throne. It is Marie who negotiates the conditions for Romania's participation in the war. The price will be Romanian sovereignty over Transylvania, The Banat and Bukovina (all in Hungary) and Bessarabia (in Russia).

1916 - The Triple Entente agrees in full Queen Marie's terms. On 27 August Romania declares war on Austria-Hungary. The war initially goes poorly for Romania, with Central Power forces counterattacking, occupying Bucharest, and forcing Romania to cede territory and pay reparations. However, the situation reverses when the Triple Entente gains the upper hand over the Central Powers.

During the war Antonescu serves as operational chief-of-staff to army commander Prezan. Towards the end of the conflict he is made chief-of-operations on the army general staff.

1918 - The war ends on 11 November with the signing of a general armistice. The Central Powers have been defeated. The Allies now begin to carve up the spoils.

Romania is more than doubled in size when its claim to Transylvania, The Banat, Bukovina, and Bessarabia is formally recognised by the Allies. The country's first free elections are held in 1919.

However, the acquisition of the new territory is not without cost. The integration of foreign nationalities and institutions leads to an increase in Romanian nationalism, discrimination against Hungarians and other minorities, and a rise in antisemitism.

1922 - In October King Ferdinand becomes the monarch of Greater Romania. The following year a new constitution is introduced establishing a highly centralised state and giving the king the power to appoint the prime minister. The constitution also grants citizenship to Romanian Jews.

Antonescu is meanwhile appointed as military attaché in Paris. From 1923 to 1926 he serves in the same capacity in London, where he meets and marries a French-Jewish woman, who bears him his only child. The couple later divorce and their child dies at an early age.

1924 - The Romanian Communist Party is banned because of its ties with the Soviet Union but continues to operate underground.

1929 - Despite experiencing rapid growth following the First World War, Romania's agriculture-dependent economy is thrown into crisis when the New York Stock Exchange crash of October sees world grain prices collapse.

1930s - The "agricultural crisis" helps feed the growth of the virulently antisemitic and anticommunist 'Iron Guard', the paramilitary wing of the 'Legion of the Archangel Michael', an ultra-nationalistic Romanian fascist group founded on 24 June 1927 by Corneliu Zelea Codreanu.

The Guard advocates war against Jews and communists, violently confronting its opponents on the streets and clandestinely organising and committing political assassinations. Its members are known as 'Legionnaires', after Codreanu's original group.

Supported and funded by Nazi Germany, the Iron Guard will become the largest fascist movement in the Balkans, with its growing influence contributing significantly to the political instability that plagues Romania throughout the decade.

Codreanu is elected to parliament in July 1931. The following year five Legionnaires are voted into parliament. In 1935 there are 4,200 Legionary sub-branches, called "nests", within Romania. By January 1937 the number has grown to 12,000. By the end of that year there are 34,000.

However, the Legionnaires and their Iron Guard do not go unopposed. Among those engaged in the fight against the fascists is the young Nicolae Ceausescu, a member of the communist youth movement who is destined to become a future dictator of Romania.

France, Romania's international patron, also applies pressure, and the Iron Guard is supposedly dissolved at the end of 1933. In reality it continues, building ties with the Nazi Party in Germany and, under the name 'Totul Pentru Tara' (All For The Country), winning 16% of the vote in elections held in 1937 and, with 66 seats, becoming the third largest party in the parliament.

1930 - Following Ferdinand's death Prince Carol II is proclaimed king.

1934 - Antonescu is made a general and appointed as chief of the Romanian general staff.

1937 - King Carol II hands government to a far-right coalition that bars Jews from the civil and army service and forbids them from buying property and practicing certain professions. Antonescu is appointed as minister of defence.

1938 - With the political turmoil mounting, Carol suspends the constitution on 12 February and assumes dictatorial powers. Rigid censorship and tight police surveillance are imposed, along with discriminatory measures aimed at minority races.

On 19 April the police arrest and imprison Codreanu and other Iron Guard leaders and crack down on the Guard's rank and file. On 29 November Codreanu and 13 Iron Guards are shot dead by the police, allegedly while they are attempting to escape custody. However, it is widely believed that the killings have been staged on the order of King Carol II.

1939 - On 23 August the Soviet Union and Germany sign a nonaggression pact carving up Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence, with the USSR claiming Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, part of the Balkans, including Romania, and half of Poland.

German troops invade Poland on 1 September. Britain and France declare war on Germany two days later. The Second World War has begun.

Romania's prime minister proclaims the country's neutrality on 6 September but is assassinated by the Iron Guard on 21 September. King Carol II tries to maintain neutrality for several months more, but is finally compelled to strike a deal with Hitler.

Romania is subsequently forced to give Bessarabia and northern Bukovina to the Soviet Union, cede the north of Transylvania to Hungary, and return Southern Dobruja to Bulgaria.

This loss of about one-third of the country's area and population causes a backlash against King Carol. Faced with the beginning of rebellion led by the Iron Guard, he suspends the constitution and appoints Antonescu as prime minister.

1940 - Antonescu is appointed prime minister on 5 September. The following day Antonescu, supported by the Iron Guard and renegade military officers and backed by Germany, demands that King Carol II abdicate in favour of his son Prince Michael and leave the country.

Together with Horia Sima, chief of the Iron Guard, Antonescu establishes the National Legionary Government. Antonescu is named 'Conducator' (Leader) and Sima appointed as deputy prime minister.

German forces enter Romania on 7 October. Antonescu brings Romania into the war on the side of the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) on 23 November. He meets with Hitler, allows Nazi forces to occupy the country, and introduces stricter antisemitic laws and restrictions on Jewish, Greek, and Armenian businessmen.

Antonescu will meet again with Hitler in January and May 1941. Under Antonescu's leadership Romania will become one of Germany's staunchest allies, providing the Nazis with food, fuel and more combat troops than all of Germany's other allies combined.

Meanwhile, with Antonescu's blessing, the Iron Guard unleashes a reign of terror, murdering prominent associates of the deposed King Carol in revenge for Codreanu's death, and massacring Jews. However, when the Iron Guard's activities start to become too disruptive, German and Romanian soldiers begin to round up and disarm its members.

1941 - On 21 January the Iron Guard rebels and stages an attempted coup against Antonescu, killing 127 Jews during a three-day rampage. After several weeks German and Romanian crush the uprising and force the Guard to disband. Antonescu then assumes dictatorial powers, adopting the title 'Marshal' in October and becoming chief of state as well as president of the council of ministers.

Further anti-Jewish measures are now introduced, including the establishment of a National Romanianisation Centre with the goal of removing Jews from Romanian life.

Germany invades the Soviet Union on 22 June. Supported by almost one million Romanian troops, the Germans advance swiftly east towards Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), Stalingrad (now Volgograd) and Moscow, where they are halted on 6 December by a Russian counteroffensive.

Antonescu later tells investigators in the Soviet Union: "Since Hitler's offer to initiate a joint campaign against the USSR corresponded to my own aggressive intentions, I announced my agreement to participate in the attack on the Soviet Union and pledged myself to prepare the necessary number of Romanian troops and, at the same time, to increase deliveries of the oil and food required by the German armies."

The invasion is initially favourable for Romania, with Hitler honouring an agreement to return sovereignty over Bessarabia and northern Bukovina as well as allowing the country to annex Soviet lands immediately east of the Dniester River, including Odessa.

However, Jews in both 'Old Romania' and the occupied territories suffer increased discrimination and violence as they come to be viewed as potential allies and spies of the Soviet Union.

On 19 June Antonescu orders the expulsion of 40,000 Jews from villages and towns in 'Old Romania' to detention camps and urban ghettos.

On 25 June German and Romanian troops kill at least 900 Jews at Iasi, the country's second city and the capital of the northern province of Moldavia. Hundreds more die as they are transported from the city. Some estimates put the total number killed during the pogrom as high as 10,000.

On 8 July Antonescu tells his army to be "merciless". "Sugary and incorporeal humanism is inappropriate in this situation," Antonescu states. "I think that the Jews should be forced to leave Bessarabia and Bukovina. And Ukrainian people must leave the country also. ... I am not disturbed if the world should consider us barbarians. You can use machine-guns if it is necessary. And I tell you that the law does not exist. ... So, let us give up all the formalities and use this complete freedom. I assume all the responsibility and claim that the law does not exist."

About 310,000 Jews are subsequently purged from Bukovina and Bessarabia. Of these about 160,000 are killed outright by German and Romanian army units assisted by Ukrainian and Romanian civilians. On 15 September Antonescu orders the expulsion of the 150,000 survivors to concentration camps and urban ghettos in the 'Transnistria' region of the Ukraine, a Nazi killing ground where more than 800,000 European Jews die. Of the 150,000 Romanian Jews sent to Transnistria only about 50,000 will survive. From December 1943 they will be allowed to return to their homelands.

On 22 October, following an explosion at the Romanian headquarters in Odessa, Antonescu orders that for every Romanian or German officer killed, 200 persons are to be executed. For every Romanian or German enlisted man killed, 100 will die. The order will cost 25,000 Odessa Jews their lives when the city is burnt on 23 October in retaliation for an attack by partisans on the army's headquarters in the town.

All told, about 420,000 members of Romania's pre-war Jewish community of 760,000 die during the war. About 260,000 are killed in Bessarabia, Bukovina, and in the camps in Transnistria. In northern Transylvania about 120,000 of the region's 150,000 Jews are killed or deported by Hungary's Nazi government to concentration camps.

However, most Jews in Old Romania will survive the war, principally because Antonescu refuses to allow mass deportations of 300,000 of them to Nazi concentration camps, fearing that the economy would collapse as a result. It is also believed that Antonescu's policy towards the Jews changes once he realises that Germany will lose the war.

Meanwhile, the United States enters the war when the Japanese air force bombs the US naval base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on 7 December.

1943 - The war turns against Germany in the winter of 1942-43 when the Sixth Army is defeated at Stalingrad. Over 500,000 German-led troops are killed during the battle, including the majority of the Romanian soldiers accompanying the Germans.

By the end of 1943, the Soviets have broken through the German siege of Leningrad and recaptured much of the Ukrainian Republic. They now begin to move west towards Romania and Germany.

1944 - The Red Army crosses into Romania on 20 August. On 23 August King Michael, aided by a number of army officers and armed Communist-led civilians, and supported by the National Democratic Bloc, orders the arrest of Antonescu and seizes control of the government.

The king quickly restores the 1923 constitution, orders a cease-fire with the Allied forces, and declares war on Germany. The Red Army occupies Bucharest on 31 August 1944. On 12 September Romania and the Soviet Union sign an armistice.

Romania agrees to pay reparations of US$300 million, repeal anti-Jewish laws, ban fascist groups, and cede Bessarabia and northern Bukovina to the Soviet Union. However, the country regains sovereignty over northern Transylvania.

Romanian troops now side with the Soviet forces in the advance against Germany and its allies, and about 120,000 of them will die fighting for the liberation of Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

Antonescu is taken to the Soviet Union for interrogation before being returned to Romania to stand trial as a war criminal.

1945 - The war ends on 7 May when Germany surrenders unconditionally. Romania's military causalities total at least 230,000 troops killed and 180,000 missing or captured. About 130,000 soldiers have been deported to the Soviet Union, where many have perished in prison camps.

In total, about 985,000 Romanians have died during the war.

1946 - In May Antonescu is prosecuted for war crimes. He is condemned to death on 17 May and executed by firing squad on 1 June at the Fort Jilava Prison in a suburb of Bucharest.

A leftist government wins what is considered to be a rigged general election held on 19 November. Romania falls behind the Soviet Union's 'Iron Curtain'. With Soviet backing, the Romanian Communist Party takes control of the government. King Michael is forced to abdicate.

Postscript

1948 - On 13 April the government proclaims the Romanian People's Republic and adopts a Stalinist constitution. Romania will remain under communist rule until December 1989, when Nicolae Ceausescu is overthrown in a violent revolution.

1997 - In March six right-wing members of the Romania's now democratic government petition the country's prosecutor-general to initiate legal proceedings for the rehabilitation of Antonescu. The government is also asked to erect an official commemorative statue of Antonescu. After a national and international controversy the proceedings are halted.

1998 - On 29 November it is reported that a contemporary incarnation of the Iron Guard plans to officially register as a political party under the new name 'National Union for Christian Rebirth'. The same day, a crowd of Guardists gather in a forest near Bucharest to mark the 60th anniversary of the killing of Iron Guard founder, Corneliu Codreanu.

1999 - In January the Romanian government makes the study of the 'Holocaust' mandatory in schools and universities. Romanian teachers will undergo special training in Israel to teach the courses.

2002 - In March the government makes the public denial of the Holocaust a punishable offence and bans the construction of monuments to people guilty of crimes against humanity. Some existing statues and monuments honouring Antonescu are demolished, fascist and xenophobic organisations and symbols are outlawed, and a memorial to Holocaust victims is constructed with government support.

2003 - After decades of denial about the role of Romania in the Holocaust, the country's government issues a statement on 17 June saying that the Antonescu regime "was guilty of grave war crimes, pogroms, and mass deportations of Romanian Jews to territories occupied or controlled by the Romanian Army" from 1940 to 1944.

The Antonescu regime also employed "methods of discrimination and extermination which were part of the Holocaust," the statement says.

In October the government announces that it has set up a commission of inquiry into the period.

"We want to be able to offer ... to all teachers, students, to all Romanians as well as historians and international public opinion documents, studies and other materials needed for knowing and understanding the Holocaust in Romania," President Ion Iliescu says.

The commission is to be headed by the Romanian-born Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

Only about 14,000 Jews now live in Romania.

2004 - On 11 October Romania marks its first 'Holocaust Day'. Addressing parliamentarians and Jewish leaders, Romanian President Ion Iliescu admits that antisemitism was a state-sponsored ideology before and during the Second World War.

"We must not forget or minimise the darkest chapter of Romania's recent history, when Jews were the victims of the Holocaust," he says.

Comment: There are enough contradictions in Antonescu's character to warrant further investigation. He was deeply antisemitic, believing there was "a conspiracy of world Jewry against Romania" and that Jews were evil incarnate, but was engaged to two Jewish women and married a third.

He sent tens of thousands of Jews and other minorities off to die in the death camps of Transnistria, but when he realised that the game was up for Hitler's Third Reich allowed the survivors to return and stopped the deportation of Romania's remaining Jewish population.

He believed that he had been chosen by "higher powers" to usher in a golden age in Romania's history but ended up creating the conditions that would allow a takeover by the communists who he hated and who would bring the country to its knees.

He could be subject to violent mood swings, reputedly needed constant medical supervision, and earned the nickname 'Red Dog' because of his red hair, displays of arrogance, and willingness to spill other people's blood.